Chef’s Table: A victorious concept
BY SARAH KHANNA
A one-night event at the Cellar Door Bistro, quaintly hidden away on a quiet street in Maadi, promised to be, if anything, interesting. Chefs Ayman Samir, Moustafa El Refaey and Wesam Masoud had lured a small but curious crowd to savor their chosen flavors of summer in a casual setting: tan linens, multicolored runners and pristine white napkins.
Inviting us to share three large communal tables, diners mingled well before the first course — a vibrant atmosphere prevailed. Served in disposable plastic, a hurried thought although somewhat trendy in shape, came a tomato consommé to begin, served chilled with a fine dice of tomatoes and subtle hints of basil. Clear and explicit in garlic, this cold teaser kicked off the night with a buzz.
An oblong plate came next carrying two pastry cups on opposite ends and a centered Niçoise salad. On the left, a thoroughly enjoyable grilled salad filled a hard shell that was sweet and redolent of waffle cones. The contrasting quality of the sugar when joined with the tender leaves of grilled lettuce, heavily salted and reminiscent of a backyard barbecue, balanced out to make room for a duo of equal weight: a grilled tomato wedge and its colorful partner, a single slice of mango, green peel intact.
The Niçoise salad failed to impress most at the table despite its striking appearance. In an attempt to modernize this classic, the presentation had taken center stage leaving the flavors lacking and a little dry. The attractive angular body in this deconstruction of the original dish could benefit from the directness of a simple vinaigrette. Ultimately, this option was overshadowed by its two neighbors.
On the far right was the orange, olive and harissa salad held together in a pastry shell. Floury and tasting closest to a Mexican flatbread tortilla, it brought with it a prominent element of surprise: no one, at least at the table where I was seated, expected to see these almost identical twins framing the plate consist of two different doughs. Neatly extracted supremes of orange were tossed with briny Kalamata olives, adding bursts of acidity and sweet citrus juices to a sharp kick of julienned onion and harissa.
Chef Ayman Samir who is also the owner of Cellar Door Bistro, with his Tunisian roots and classic training at the Le Cordon Bleu California Institute, revealed his smarts with this salad, one that was well received and highly praised for his bold choice of flavors.
The waiters were efficient — except for minor hiccups like leaving my soup bowl to keep me company until after dessert — and did not appear to tire through the night. Next they served consistently from the right what was named a “liquid bruschetta with peach” — a fresh tomato gazpacho with fruity, intense notes of peach, lingering traces of basil and finally, a balsamic reduction that lends a sting to the final aroma. Several servings were sent back half full but for the sole reason of the portion size that was deemed a little too large for a dense soup. This soup, although also tomato-based as was the first, is an ideal accompaniment on the beach and would have me trying to recreate it at home.
The coming entrée involved several focal points on a large round plate with a deep set center: a trio of ravioli — beetroot, spinach and artichoke — revolving around a single sun-dried tomato arancini, a golden mozzarella-filled rice croquette atop a delicate smoked red pepper aioli. Tapping the arancini with the tines of my fork, the immediate crackle of first-rate frying broke out to make way for the rice, cautiously held together until loosened up for the mozzarella to show itself.
Chef Moustafa El Refaey, co-owner of Zooba, a WACS certified judge and guest chef for the night, while couped up in the kitchen, would not notice until much later in the night his accomplishment in coupling breadcrumbs and rice with another Egyptian favorite, a melting cheese.
Both the spinach and artichoke ravioli were common in concept, the first served with a rich cream sauce, the latter with chunky tomatoes. The pasta was firm and toothsome, and while it kept good company with the effective spinach filling, it did not serve to elevate the artichoke ravioli, which was bland and relatively grainy by comparison and exceedingly governed by the sauce. The fourth item on the plate, the beetroot ravioli, stuffed with a purée of dates, cashew and macadamia excited many with a thick brush stroke of its syrupy, deeply earthy beetroot juice reduction. The filling pressed between two wafer-thin beetroot discs was nutty and got wiped off the plate clean.
Arriving next was a sea bass and shrimp ceviche in cucumber water set down on the table to prepare us for the next dish, a trio of salmon. Through the cucumber water, well-layered whiffs of cilantro were pleasant and refreshing. The ceviche carried with it explosive shots of lime and chili that stayed with you until the next dish and could be tamed by the freshness of the cucumber water chaser. Unique, unexpected and true to Peru’s national dish, this concept might improve slightly with an alternate method of plating, separating the ceviche from the water and allowing guests to interact more with this immaculate dish in need of some oomph.
A trio of salmon comprised of a roasted salmon and mango salad, an anchovy seaweed crusted salmon and wasabi mash and a smoked salmon with an innovative coulis followed. Pink slivers of smoked salmon rested on an unpretentious bed of softened fennel; an elegant flavor pairing when matched with the subdued prickly pear coulis hidden beneath an oversized strand of fresh dill. The roasted salmon was considerably larger in size than the anchovy and nori-crusted salmon and held agreeable flavors regardless of the hasty preparation that left me with a bone in my mouth. No traces of wasabi appeared in the mashed potatoes tinged with the wonders of butter but an appetizing salmon skin, almost smoked in taste, made up for the loss.
A zingy lemon sorbet followed as a palate cleanser before presenting a main of braised lamb shank and beef tenderloin. Slow-cooked for eight hours, the Australian lamb shank was well-executed with a generous apple demi-glace. Tender and luxurious, this shined a little brighter than the rest. The beef tenderloin, cooked to medium and served with a cucumber yogurt sauce and a one-of-a-kind red wine harissa sauce, suffered from the heavy ladling of yogurt. This dish with a cold center of fava bean coriander quenelle spooned beside a root vegetable terrine respected the need for texture but fell behind quickly with the flat terrine. Some warmth in the sauces and sides could have elevated this dish, but understood is the quest to be seasonal and weather-appropriate.
Masterminded by Chef at Large Wesam Masoud, former executive chef at the Cairo Jazz Club and now chief consultant of his own F&B company, dessert proved to be a winner. Chewy pretzel buns, when torn into, soaked up the surrounding bittersweet orange crème anglaise gently overlapping with a mint chocolate ganache and topped with pistachio crumbs and brûléed bananas.
The outspoken cardamom and sultry vanilla in the pretzel added much welcomed depth of flavor; with the marriage of orange and chocolate, this dish needed nothing further to cap a thought through dinner service. In total, the event displayed a skilled and steady hand, a play on the classics and a stab at the contemporary that worked. This idea can only grow from here armed with a team of diligent chefs that aim to inspire. -The Egypt Monocle